On the Moon
By Inez Tan
Moon colony, landing port
It's the year 2082, and there is life on the moon – human life, hailing from the United States of America, Russia, China, Germany, Singapore.
Ships land in a separate port from the main base to minimise traffic. In a passenger shuttle docked inside the landing port, Yevgeny Kuznetsov presses the button that releases the door hatch with a pneumatic gasp.
The passengers begin to board. In the low gravity, their movements are of a child's in slow motion: large, exaggerated strides, the concentrated stomp it takes to land your centre of mass.
"Good morning, sir," Yevgeny says to each dazed person who clambers aboard, "good morning, ma'am!" He counts among his passengers between 30 and 40 sciencey types and a handful of tourists. Mario Rossini, one of the few true commuters, comes on board last. He makes this trip twice a month and is the only one who looks perfectly at ease in his surroundings. Yevgeny nods at Mario, and the two men exchange smiles.
Among the newcomers is 32-year-old Carina Chan, one hundred percent a sciencey type, who pipes, "Good morning!" at Yevgeny, a huge grin all over her comically youthful face. The corners of Yevgeny's eyes wrinkle upward. He himself came over moonside at the age of 15 hoping to train as a mechanic, but found he preferred people.
Yevgeny peers down the side of his shuttle. At this hour, it's Seng and Ali helping to load up the passengers' luggage and water tanks, stowing some items in compartments that snap shut and strapping the larger pieces down so they don't bump around during the journey to the central moon base.
"Hurry up, you slowpokes," Yevgeny calls down to them.
"Shut up, you old man," Ali shouts back, but they all laugh. The culture of the moon is one of ritual and repetition. Against the risks every one of them is taking day by day by being out here moonside, constancy is their assurance, as unchanging as the endless, chalky grey landscape. One immense metal door of the landing port grinds open, revealing the grey expanse of the moon. Yevgeny starts up the shuttle. As they roll out, grey dust sprays in a shower up from the shuttle's huge tires. The passengers talk among themselves about the sun's unflagging brightness du jour: what rotation the earth makes in 24 hours takes the moon 28 and a half days.
Moon colony, main base
The colony consists of a central hub and branches that taper outwards, like the arms of a starfish. It is a hermetically sealed complex, with a self-sustaining air recycler. Inside the colony's main complex, earth gravity is maintained. Lights begin to come on in some quarters, marking the start of another day.
Tamara Brock, or Tamara the dog-lady, as she is affectionately known, is already up and waiting for the first shuttle to arrive. She wears a baggy sweatshirt and ripped cargoes, her grey hair pulled back in an airtight braid. She is holding a slack leash, at the end of which is a sleeping basset hound. He is an Eeyore of canines, but Tamara has a soft spot for him and indulges his melancholy.
Mario is first off the shuttle. He spots Tamara immediately.
"Good trip, Mr. Rossini?" asks Tamara.
"The same, the same," says Mario amiably. He drops to a crouch and starts aggressively rumpling the loose bristly fur of his mournful dog. "Skippy! Did you miss me, Skippy?" "Give Sleeping Beauty some exercise, okay?" says Tamara. "He won't do a thing for me and his muscles are turning into bread dough. This breed isn't built sturdy."
"Until next time, Mr. Rossini."
"Thanks, Tamara. See you."
Meanwhile, the gaggle of junior scientists busies themselves unloading their equipment, grumbling good-naturedly about the return of normal gravity. They are greeted by a tall man wearing a primly buttoned white lab coat and circular gold-rimmed glasses.
"Welcome, juniors. Dr. Lang, of the Mars division. I'll be your supervisor here," he says with a smile, shaking their hands. Carina struggles to keep from looking goofy. As if she didn't know everything about him already!
Anecdote I: A moment of thanks
Neil Armstrong of the Apollo 11 was the first man to walk on the moon: July 20th, 1969. People have heard this story: that he probably said, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," but really meant to say, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." A lot of controversy arose over the alleged error. Armstrong himself eventually gave a statement that he would like the 'a' to be printed in parentheses, like so: [a] So, [a] lot of controversy over [a] small thing. It's less known that on that same flight, Edwin Aldrin, the lunar module pilot, broadcast:
"I'd like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way."
He then took Communion. In space! Knowing, one supposes, that man or mankind would need to repent of the brave new endeavour almost as soon as he began.
At the gates of the animal enclosures
Tamara is being walked down to the power room by 15 massive dogs whose leashes fan out to the width of the corridor. This group comprises of hardy breeds with a work ethic in the blood: sleek Siberian huskies, cheery Samoyeds, deceptively spindly-looking Eurohounds. Her dogs do some work, but many of them are simply adopted as pets. Most of the primates, though, are science chimps, trained to pilot little moon buggies gathering data. As she passes the monkey habitat, Tamara waves to her friends, Homo sapiens and simian alike. Kokomo, her favourite rhesus monkey, gibbers and throws a hard rock of monkey chow at the window overlooking the corridor, his usual morning greeting. Hooked tail whipping the air, he cackles and claps his bony hands in delight as Tamara sticks her tongue out at him. It cheers her up for a moment, but today is not going to be a happy day.
Reaching the power room, Tamara slaps on the lights, revealing rows of canine treadmills. The dogs are all frisking and sniffing, straining to get to their favorite station. But Tamara holds on tightly to their leashes. The packing order has to be observed here.
First she unclips her own Acey, a light fawn-coloured Greenland dog with the furry cat-like ears characteristic of the breed. "Up, Acey!" commands Tamara. Acey hops up onto her treadmill, her eyes bright and wicked and her tongue lolling out of her mouth with happiness.
Whining and straining at their leashes, the dogs get to their stations one by one. When they are all positioned, Tamara puts her lips to a fist, whistles, and starts up the Run sequence. The treadmills hum and their rubber platforms begin their cycle. The dogs shuffle and break into brisk, happy strides.
The door swings open and a tour group tumbles in.
"And here are our own colony work dogs!" the tour guide cries, a hint of desperation in her voice. She looks like one of those junior scientists who haven't slept for weeks. "They generate a small but significant portion of the colony's power, which in turns recycles the complex's air and water."
Some of the tourists smile dotingly at Tamara, but today she can't muster one in return. She knows what she should have done first thing this morning, but she didn't want to head back from the power room to two bags. So she's letting them have just a little more time. Whether that's cruel or kind is not a question she wants to ask herself.
The tour group is still there as Tamara gets up and stands right in the middle of the power room with her arms outstretched above her head. She closes her eyes. Surrounding her, panting, the sea of dogs is the best sound in the world.
Greenhorns on the grand tour
Carina's group trails after Dr Lang as he leads them around the complex. With their own eyes the new recruits take in every sight that they have only dreamed of since their recent, geeky childhood, beginning with the casual visitor's view. There's The Artemis! The European-style hotel is a modern wonder, built with all technology of earth and the challenges of the moon. Dr Lang relates how it took 15 cargo trips to bring up the carpeting alone. Decidedly luxurious and conventional, it was conceived of by French designers to soothe the nerves of those who braved the journey. Carina remembers the slogan of the video ads: "The Artemis. You've made it."
Beside it is Trilliways – "The best restaurant not on earth," Dr. Lang says with a straight face. Laughter – everyone knows Trilliways is the only restaurant not on earth. "All joking aside," Lang continues, "you will be taking most of your meals in the mess hall in the science arm. But since it's the first time on the moon for many of you, we'll be treating you kids to Trilliways tonight."
Everyone cheers! Carina feels like she is about to expire from joy. But she keeps her head, taking in every detail of what she sees and storing it away from later reference. Secretly, Carina thinks of herself as an undercover agent on the moon. She wants to be the founder of the Mars colony, the first settler of that hot red planet. Carina Chan, aereologist extraordinaire. To that end, she tells herself firmly that she will learn everything. She practices a mental exercise she devised for herself as a child of five: imagine converting all information into a long thin stream of ticker-tape, something she'd seen pictures of in history of science books. There was a ticker-tape parade for the Apollo 11 astronauts. Carina tells herself that when she opens the Mars base, she'll throw a ticker-tape parade too – one made from all her own cleverness.
They pass the Moon Museum and galleries for hosting lunar artwork, Space-for-Dummies lectures, and old-fashioned telescopes that take metal-plated tokens before finally reaching the science arm proper. Dr Lang clears them through security with the old-fashioned keycard he produces from a Jacquard weave lanyard around his neck.
"Retro-froody," gasps one new scientist in the group. Carina rolls her eyes, glad that she isn't that obvious.
Now here is the insider's world, privy to those who work in and really understand space. "The workstations are clustered by department," Dr Lang informs the group. "It's all here. Geomorphology, cosmochemistry, selenography…"
A short stout balding man comes up to Dr Lang and claps him on the back.
"My colleague, Dr. Peeler," says Dr Lang.
"Dr Peeler, moon division. Cold craters, that's my specialty," chuckles Dr Peeler, the bag of his chin wobbling. "All those places where the sun don't shine. Haw haw haw!"
Carina notices that the only one in the group who doesn't laugh is a tall, dark-skinned woman who looks to be about her age, her black hair in stiff thin braids down her back. Judging from her stony expression, she thinks that Dr Peeler is batshit insane.
Still in observation mode, Carina spots the odd empty desk amongst the younger scientists; turnover is swift. The moon is no exception to the time-honoured rule that the younger the researcher, the more tired he or she must look. Carina skims over a poster one of them has put up:
Dr Lang assures them that they will be getting acquainted with the research domains soon enough and brings them back full circle to collect their belongings. He reads from a list that assigns Carina to a roommate named Adeline Ngcobo.
It's the woman who didn't laugh at Dr Peeler's joke.
"Hi!" says Carina.
"Hi," says Adeline, after a moment's pause, and with something of a grimace.
Tending the garden
Mario stops by The Artemis so the porters can take his suitcase to his permanent quarters there. The Fortress of Solitude, Mario calls it in his mind. Mario knows that ironically enough, Superman's Fortress had guest rooms for all of his friends, including the Clark Kent room to fool visitors. Someone else's empty room in your house – isn't that entirely beside the point?
Mario walks Skippy (very slowly, it is true) to the greenhouses. Potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers are among the crops grown on the moon hydroponically. The system is self-operating, but Mario has a little grid in one corner that he waters manually when he is around. He recalls the Chinese poet Tao Yuanming, who left his post as a government official in order to live the simple life of a farmer. Like Tao Yuanming, Mario knows his charade of agriculture is the highest form of privilege. Like Tao Yuanming, Mario also takes poetry very seriously.
On earth I cultivated only sorrows/Now on the moon, I cultivate my mind, he thinks, as he inspects his carrots. Skippy rolls over and takes another nap.
Jacob, one of the garbage men, is weaving between the rows of vegetables and collecting large sackfuls of scrap plant matter. He will take them to another facility to be composted and reused. Jacob waves to Mario.
"You look weary, man," says Jacob.
"I was," says Mario. He likes talking to Jacob. Even right this minute, Mario's investments are making a fortune in the property market, with such diverse portfolios as Singapore, Brazil, Zimbabwe, Istanbul, and Greece. Most people insist on asking him how he does it, but if Jacob cares about buying and selling, he doesn't let on.
Jacob clucks his tongue. "You must get some rest."
Mario promises he will. "I don't what it is about being on the moon," he says, "but I just sleep better here."
"Seeing Earth," says Jacob, "makes you feel like God."
Anecdote II: A risky business
"If we die, we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life." So said Gus Grissom, the second American in space, the first person to fly in space twice. Grissom died onboard the Apollo I, at a pre-launch test at Cape Kennedy. The cause of the explosion is still uncertain.
But wait a minute. Didn't he mean that the conquest of space was worth the risk of death?
Carina takes in her room. One bunk bed, the narrow, navy blue inflatable mattresses supported by an aluminum frame. Two heavy-looking gray plastic desks, which make Carina think of filing cabinets. She has never had such utilitarian furnishings before. These are Spartan quarters indeed, and Adeline Ngcobo still hasn't said a word.
"So," says Carina, trying to be conversational, "upper or lower?"
"I'm sorry?" says Adeline.
"Upper or lower?"
"Which," says Carina, aware of raising her voice, "bed–" and pointing now too –"would you–" practically shouting now – "like?!" And now feels like an idiot herself.
Adeline just stares at her for a while with a cow-dumb expression. "It doesn't matter," she says at last.
Fuming, Carina throws her suitcase onto the bottom bunk and starts unpacking.
Tamara knows that the garbage collector will come at three o'clock, so she gets it done before then. But only just. Acey starts up the howl that is in her own heart, and the other dogs start to walk in circles, uneasy.
Once dogs are past breeding age, or if one gets too sick, moon control demands they be retired. Tamara tries hard to find them new homes, she really does. She's not like some of the other breeders, who'd as soon compost their own mothers just to save themselves a little trouble. But the truth is no one is here on the moon to grow old. Mario Rossini maybe, but eccentric billionaires are their own alien race.
Jacob sees the bags and says, "God bless Dog," the thing he always says.
Tamara always writes the names on the side of the bags: Norma. Pavo. Though she could easily carry both bags, one in each hand, she makes separate trips. She had waited to put them down together so that if they were going to another place, they weren't going alone. Jacob receives the bodies, shaking his head slowly.
"You take good care of them for me now," says Tamara, turning away, her voice trembling with tears she still hasn't learned to hold back.
A group of scientists walks into a restaurant
Trilliways is feverishly popular on days when the moon gets sunlight. The floor of the dining area revolves twice every hour, so that all tables have a rotating view of the strange, monochromatic landscape through tempered glass walls. The surface of the moon is completely pitted with craters, like the traces of popped bubbles on a lumpy bar of soap. Against the uniformly grey terrain, the colony looks like a piecewise colourised old movie.
In the long corridor to the restaurant, lit like a runway, relics pertaining to the earliest space food are encased in glass. There are tubes that look like they contain gruesome shades of oil paint, and plastic bags strapped to plastic trays. The contents of the bags were "sublimated" by "feeders." Carina laughs out loud at the latex replica of the corned beef sandwich Gus Grissom smuggled into space. He was the first astronaut to be officially reprimanded – the free-floating crumbs declared to be hazardous in zero gravity.
Carina and the new scientists soon find that the cuisine of Trilliways itself is a delight – fresh, gourmet, and whimsical. "But what counts," insists Dr. Peeler, "is the atmosphere. Haw! Haw haw!"
This whole time, Adeline hasn't said a word. Across from her, Carina is desperately trying to get in on some conversation.
"Aren't all these fondue dishes great?" she enthuses to the squinty, under-shaven junior scientist seated next to her. "I guess the moon's made of cheese after all!"
The squinter turns slowly, disbelievingly, to look at Carina. "The moon is not made of cheese," he says, very gravely.
"By the way, youngsters," says Dr. Peeler, "What is the name for a scientist who studies the moon?"
"Doesn't it depend on what you're studying?" Carina volunteers eagerly.
"A lunatic!" cries Dr. Peeler, ignoring her. "HAW HAW HAW!"
Stung, Carina looks to her end of the table, but Adeline is just staring down at her mostly untouched plates of food.
Carina has tried to be understanding, but only manages to be infuriated. Didn't Adeline Ngcobo realize she was on the moon? How could she take such an opportunity so lightly? Here she was with some of the galaxy's top scientists and astronomers, eating a five-course dinner at Trilliways, and she looked as though she would rather be anywhere else.
A thought that brings Carina comfort is that Adeline probably wouldn't last for long. One day Carina would wake up to find that all of Adeline's things had been taken. Her workstation would be empty. "There's been some mistake," Dr Lang would tell her kindly. "We're so sorry you had to put up with that awful girl!" Word of Carina's saintliness would spread through the colony – though perhaps Dr. Peeler had better be merely stunned to golden silence.
Carina smiles as she eats her desserts, strawberry cheesecake and a selection of warmed cheeses. Patience, she thinks to herself. All will be as it should.
Carina is discovering the toilet system on the moon. It's a vacuum flush with a little blue sanitizer rinse that smells inexplicably like oranges. She's getting intimately acquainted with it, kneeling on the floor with almost her entire head in the bowl, retching horribly.
Sumptuous dinner at Trilliways before the body can adjust is a hearty initiation tradition. Most of the new recruits wind up sick the whole night. The current record is five and a half days. What Carina hears in the plumbing puts her mind on the interior of a seashell, empty and pure. But now she thinks she also hears a soft padding, drawing closer. Carina pulls back a little and sees a pair of rough but clean black feet step into the bathroom.
"Aaaa…" she croaks.
Strong hands reach over and gather her hair together at the nape of her neck. Her hands –Adeline's hands – are cool and smooth and a little papery.
Something inside Carina gives way. She heaves a little and cries a lot. Suddenly she would like to pack away everything about space like a flimsy cardboard screen. Behind it would be Pasadena, the first place she'd ever been outside Singapore, a place she felt she'd discovered on her own. Her old, her first apartment was not so near to Caltech, where she was doing her doctorate, but Carina chose it because it was within walking distance of the beach. She sold it several years and dwellings ago, and now there is only the hum of surrounding machinery and Adeline's slow, pensive breathing.
"Are you feeling a bit better?" Adeline asks presently.
Carina finds, to her surprise, that she is. "A bit," she admits. She makes a weak joke about indigestion. It's really a very weak joke.
"Your hair," says Adeline unexpectedly, "is very nice."
"What? I hate it," mumbles Carina groggily. She wonders if she's hallucinating now. "It's as flat as an iron, won't hold any shape…"
"I have never touched hair like this before," says Adeline, with polite curiosity.
"What, Asian hair?" Carina is feeling oddly flattered and clumsy at the same time. "Wow. Maybe I could touch yours too. After –" Carina hurriedly ducks her head again – "this is over…" Adeline giggles suddenly, a sound that reminds Carina of bubbles in a shaken soda bottle fizzing away. "You know, I wanted to vomit all day. Especially at dinner! I was so nervous I hardly ate anything. And now, look at you! Isn't that funny?"
"Ha," Carina says weakly. "Can you keep talking? It takes my… mind off things…"
"Okay," says Adeline simply. She rocks gracefully backward until with a thump, her bottom lands on the floor. She rearranges herself to sit cross-legged. "Ah… My name is Adeline Ngcobo. I come from Nigeria. I have a father, mother, an elder brother and two younger sisters. What I like best about Mars is..."
The poet at night
In the Fortress of Solitude, Mario is casting about for inspiration.
Moon, moon, loyal old friend, he begins.
Mario lifts his eyes to the hills and their gentle curves. The gray sand dunes remind him that most of the moon is still dusty barren rock, where human beings can't even breathe. Of course, mankind has been taken far. Mario's money, in particular, created practically everything on the moon today. For so many, the reality of life on the moon is a dream come true. Mario knows he has never been blessed with such dreams himself. That is his blessing – contentedness.
He pets Skippy, who doesn't stir from his slumber.
Moon, moon, loyal old friend.
All that you can't leave behind
That evening, when Tamara is doing nothing in particular, her phone rings. It's such a rare occurrence that some of the newer dogs start to bark frantically. Tamara feels a surge of guilt. It was her turn to call.
"Mom!" says Quinn breathlessly on the call screen. Her face still hasn't lost all the roundness she gained in her pregnancy. "How are you? How is Acey?"
Tamara hears her own voice say that she and Acey are fine. She realizes she should ask after her granddaughter, but the name suddenly escapes her, so she asks, "How is the little one?"
"Awful. Teething," Quinn says. But she's smiling.
"Some of the dogs have been having trouble with their teeth lately too," Tamara fibs, just to have something to say.
Luckily, Quinn hasn't been listening closely. She's repositioned the phone somewhere so that the camera looks out over Quinn and the wide-eyed infant in her arms. "Hey, Cynthia?" Quinn's voice floats over. "Remember what you wanted to say to grandma?"
"Habby," Cynthia gurgles, with a huge open-mouthed smile, "Habby, buh-day!"
"Lord," says Tamara involuntarily, under her breath.
"Cynthia wants to know when she'll get to meet you, grandma," says Quinn's voice.
"Maybe next year," Tamara lies even more guiltily. Going to the moon was always a childhood dream of hers. She had waited until Quinn headed off to college, and then she up and left. When Quinn and Bobby got married, Tamara took a ship down to attend the wedding. But she missed the dogs terribly when she was there and she swore, secretly, to never leave them again.
Tamara knows she does not fit the profile of a cookie-baking, oven mitt-clad grandmother, not the kind Quinn would like for her children. To Tamara, it seems better to be absent; it's certainly easier, which is not an insignificant factor. Quinn, of all people, should understand. And that upsets her more, the thought that her own daughter has forgotten what she's like.
"Hey, Cynthia?" says Quinn, looking away from the screen. "You wanna say hi grandma? Huh? Wanna say hi to grandma?"
Tamara loses sight of her daughter as Quinn pockets the phone. She can hear Quinn jogging her baby daughter on her hip. "Come on, Cynthia! Come on! Let's go outside! Come on!"
Tamara absent-mindedly runs her hands through nearby fur. Ixchel, her favourite husky, gives a complacent sound all in his throat.
"Oh, look!" cries Quinn, her voice muffled. "Look, Cynthia, look! It's the moon! It's grandma on the moon! Wave to grandma, Cynthia! Wave to grandma!"
Tamara pictures her daughter and her tiny daughter standing outside their house, overlooking the wheat fields down the hill, and it makes her glad that Quinn can't see the expression on her face. First Norma and Pavo, and now this. She's turning into such a sentimental old woman.
She remembers her girlhood in New England, remembers waking up and seeing the rooftops of brick buildings dusted with clean snow. Now, the velvety gray surface of the pitted moon makes her think of how everything must turn to dust and powder.
"Hi, Cynthia," Tamara says softly. She peers out at space.
I go out to space with the other trash men to the silent landscape – more than silent, a vacuum – and today, also with the bodies that for a while had names – Pavo, Norma. Meaning the peacock, the carpenter's level. Into our mythology we craft ourselves.
We drive the trash out to the dark side of the moon and bury it deep underground. We have a responsibility not to create any debris that could blaze back through the atmosphere and lay waste to the earth.
Sometimes the other men fool around. If they find something shaped like a ball, they play catch. Myself, the scorching desire I sometimes have is to rip open the bags and scatter the material within, knowing they will form a path that encircles the whole moon. I would cry, Look, we cannot escape the things that were ours! Throw nothing away, for we are all God's creations! But God tells me, that is not the way I would have you serve. That is not the way of love. My ways are higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts. So be faithful in your work, Jacob. When you dig down deep, you will find the roots of the stairway to heaven.
This I live out. To my calling, I will be faithful.
Yevgeny is making the last trip of the day, back to the landing port.
He is still surprised to think of how he made his home on the great rock that pulls the tides, that literally changes the shape of planet Earth. The rocks on its surface are between 3 and 4.6 billion years old, far older than the earth's 3 billion at most.
The moon has always made people wonder. They gazed upon it and came up with uncountable inventions: lovesickness, lycanthropy, alien species, fleets of witches riding broomsticks. Thinking the moon was made out of silver, men gazed towards it and jingled the change in their pockets. Now, someone must drive a shuttle daily between the main base and the port. Since Yevgeny started, he hasn't been back Earth-side once.
He'd like to retire before he's 50, when the body really starts to wear down. There's not much in the way of medical care on the moon. On the other hand, the longer you stay moonside, the harder it gets to re-adjust to earth. Some of his old friends, like Rigo, Taurus, and Yang, flew down to earth only to cross straight over again. Couldn't make it back on the home planet. Missed it here on the moon.
It's pretty, too. Never a rainy day.
In the driver's seat of the shuttle, Yevgeny folds his leathery brown arms over his chest and goes right to sleep. Above him hangs a crescent-shaped bite of a blue and green orb, swirled with white. Colour out there too, and life.
Anecdote III: Miles away from home
William Anders, member of the third NASA group of astronauts, was the first to send the home planet photographs of itself. We remember him for saying, "We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth."QLRS Vol. 16 No. 1 Jan 2017